Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

World Theatre for Children and Young People Day 20

You may have missed it, but it was World Theatre for Children and Young People Day last week.

Or, if you happened to be in Cadle, in the Swansea Valley, you might just have been one of those who went to a special after-school performance of Kapow, Theatr na n’Og’s show for primary school children, where politicians and the media were invited to join parents and children in a celebration.

A celebration of what ? Not just the rather cumbersomely named World Theatre for Children and Young People Day, but of the resurgence of this particular form of theatre in Wales.

Last year na n’Og, for example, played to over 10,000 children from Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot and Bridgend.

The company’s ambitious musical The Princess and the Hunter was so successful it has been brought back and starts a second tour at Brecon’s Theatr Brycheiniog next week – and this time takes in three venues over the border, in Birmingham, Coventry and Hereford.

Theatr na n’Og is one of eight companies in Wales specialising in theatre for young people – each with a distinctive style and approach developed since the theatre-in-education movement took root in Wales thirty years ago.

Back then the companies, formed from an alliance between the arts council and local education authorities, worked solely in schools. But the reorganisation of local government, changing policies from the arts council and the intervention of the National Assembly has meant that each company does its own thing.

When the arts council decided the “rationalise” the sector in the late 1990s, cutting the number of companies from eight to four or five, each a limited-time franchise, the well-organised rebellion by the sector led to executive resignations and a massive shake-up at the arts council – and the active intervention of the new National Assembly, an intervention which could be seen, ironically, as the first step towards the state control of the arts that now seems inevitable.

The changes are reflected in the confusing terminology. What was TIE (Theatre-in-education) can now be YPT (Young People’s Theatre), TYP (Theatre for Young People) or Theatre for Young Audiences, which embraces what was called Children’s Theatre. And then there’s Youth Theatre… The labels indicate whether the emphasis is on education, on work for young people or with young people or indeed by young people.

Rhondda-based Spectacle Theatre, for instance, still sees itself essentially as a TIE company, although it has its own sophisticated set of aims and objectives that relate directly to the community it serves from its Llwynypia base.

Gwent Theatre, like Spectacle, calls itself a TIE company and sees its first responsibility as to its geographical constituency and also runs a commendable youth theatre from its Abergavenny home.

Theatr Iolo, on the other hand, has more of a European-style outlook, producing a range of work but with an emphasis on scripted plays – Bison and Sons and The Flock, for example, successfully played also to adult audiences and toured outside the UK as well as to the company’s Cardiff audiences.

Arad Goch has the rare distinction of having had the same artistic director ever since it was formed in 1989, Jeremy Turner, who is also active in the international young people’s theatre movement, ASSITEJ, and organises the biennial international festival in Abersytwyth, Agor Drysau.

While all companies perform in English and Welsh, Arad Goch specialises in Welsh-language work and is one of the few Welsh theatre companies that takes Welsh-language work to overseas festivals.

Cwmni’r Fran Wen, based at Menai Bridge, has also always prioritised Welsh-language work and serves its local authorities and Llandrindod’s Theatr Powys also still hangs on to its original brief – to provide challenging TIE and community work mainly for Powys schools but also makes the odd foray into Cardiff and abroad.

Clwyd Theatr Cymru TYP, on the other hand, has a stated policy of bringing young people to its theatre space rather than taking theatre to schools and benefits from the leadership of Tim Baker, who ran Theatre West Glamorgan (now Theatr na n’Og) before being appointed associate director of CTC under Terry Hands.

And, of course, there’s Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre Company, specifically formed to provide theatre for younger audiences – though younger in this case means under 25. Thus the company can produce its own shows for different age groups (Merlin and the Cave of Dreams and The Selfish Giant were its most recent successes), can bring in a range of work from all over the UK made for young audiences – and can encourage new young writers with fledgling-playwright projects like ScriptSlam, support a youth theatre of some 150 members and run Acting Out, with Cardiff Schools Service and Coleg Hafren, a two-year acting course.

It isn’t just the labels that differentiate the companies, however. There was time when the TIE sector was seen internationally as “the jewel in the crown” of Welsh theatre provision.

Those days have gone and for many the idea of “theatre-in-education” is outmoded and limiting – and ideological battles within the movement haven’t helped.

Last year’s Agor Drysau festival exposed serious flaws in the Welsh collection of companies, both in approach and in quality.

The victory over the arts council mandarins had perhaps allowed the sector to rest on its laurels, reinforced by the Assembly’s uncritical embrace of its aims and objectives.

But now things have moved on again, albeit thanks to the extra funding from the Assembly. Some companies, like Theatr Powys next week, feel confident enough to showcase their work at the Millennium Centre - not content with tackling Greek tragedy (The Burial at Thebes is a participatory TIE programme where secondary school students get involved in the issues raised by Sophocles’s Antigone), the company is next weekend staging Edwards Bond’s The Children in the Bay along with the members of Mid-Powys Youth Theatre.

Arad Goch is also at the Millennium Centre, in June, with a co-production with BBC Wales, Happy Bobiday, aimed at younger audiences.

Gwent Theatre is coming to the end of a very successful tour of The Music Box Maker by its resident playwright Philip Michell and is about to launch a schools tour of Diane Samuels’s 100million Footsteps, while the excellent Gwent Youth Theatre, which the company supports, has just staged Dennis Potter’s Son of Man – no easy obvious amdram favourites for these young people.

And if you think YPT is a cosy skive from school lessons, think again: it can be uncomfortable, challenging, revelatory, inspiring, mind-stretching, barrier-breaking.
One of the most affecting shows I’ve seen recently was Theatr Iolo’s On The Edge, which tackled autism and was part of a whole programme of awareness-raising for secondary schools. Spectacle Theatre’s recent play for younger secondary school pupils, Dumb, which covered a range of issues from bullying to sex abuse, was similarly startling. These productions, like most of the work produced by Wales’s YPT companies, are not just educational, either, but are real theatre often performed, written and directed to higher standards than some “grown-up” productions.

In fact at any given time students in Wales, from primary school to college ages, will participate in a TIE programme and so be reaping the rewards of a policy initiated by the arts council as one of its priorities when it was first formed – and today young audiences throughout the country will also find that at least one of the YPT companies will be taking a show to a venue near them.

And by the way, we adults can also occasionally get to see what we’re missing. If there’s a special public staging of a TYP show near you, try and catch it. Forget the labels, this can be theatre at its best.

author:David Adams

original source: The Western Mail
10 April 2006


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